Cover Story: Crime lab lag time

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

LINCOLNTON, NC (WBTV) - An alleged sexual deviant was just arrested this week nearly two years after he was accused.

Police had the evidence. They had the witnesses.  But Frank Romance of Lincoln county held onto his freedom for a long time.

It's a child pornography case.  And police have known it for months.

In December, 2008 Frank Romance's own family turned him in - handed over their computer. The hard drive allegedly full of pictures and videos of children engaged in lewd sexual acts with adults.

Why did it take so long for there to be an arrest?  That's the question that's dogged Frank Romance's daughter Carrie who turned her father in.

She says the child porn was on her computer in her home that her father was using while he was living with her.

Carrie Romance told us he turned her father in because she was afraid for her young son and other kids in the neighborhood.

What she saw on her computer disgusted her.

"I couldn't believe it at first," she said.  "I saw one I thought might been a mistake.. but then I scrolled down and there was hundreds."

Several hundred pictures and videos, she said images of young girls having sex with adult men that had been downloaded on her computer.

"It just disgusted me so bad I started crying and freaking out and everything."

But after Lincolnton police seized her computer's hard drive Carrie Romance assumed her father Frank Romance would be arrested fairly quickly.  She was wrong.

"It's kinda a honor system with the lab," said Lincolnton Police Sgt. Matt Painter.  "They expect you not to request a rush when you really don't need that."

Painter took the case and like many departments he sent the computer to the SBI crime lab in Raleigh for highly specialized computer forensics analysts to tear it apart - to find what's even been deleted so a case could be built against Frank Romance.

But Sgt. Painter didn't ask for the case to be rushed since it was fairly obvious the victims in the downloaded material weren't local children being victimized.  As a result the case fell to a lower priority for the crime lab.

"If the victims had been local if it had been some kind of outfit where he was actually making the recording himself or actual victims here in the area then that would be a different scenario," he said.

The North Carolina Attorney General's office which oversees the state crime lab says computer forensics cases involving homicide, sexual assault and molestation are given the highest priority and worked first.

This case didn't fall into any of those categories.

"Of course it's frustrating."  But Sgt. Matt Painter says he understands.

Computer forensics is such a specialized field.  There's a limited number of analysts the state has available and they keep very busy.

"It was aggravating yeah," said Carrie Romance.  "I got aggravated.  Sometimes I just thought about calling and cussing them out but I knew the police officers and Detective Painter couldn't do much about it."

The state crime lab released the computer about a month ago, the case was presented to the District Attorney's office and Romance was arrested this week 19 months after the initial complaint was made.

Why don't police departments do the work themselves?

It takes a specialized scientist and departments don't want to risk deleting something by mistake on the hard drive.

But some department are starting to get involved in the technology.  Gastonia Police Department for example has trained a computer forensic analyst and has bought the expensive equipment it takes to run a program.  Lincolnton Police hopes to be able to utilize them in future cases.

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